The Plus Size Belly Dance Project – An interview with Bellatrix Ali
I’ve been following a very cool on line project called “The Plus Size Belly Dance Project”, and I wanted to bring it to the attention of the “Belly Dance at Any Size” audience, and let them know about the woman behind it. So I tracked her down and asked her if she would let me interview her—and she agreed, happily. She made it so easy, often elaborating on a subject all on her own, and frequently giving me ideas for the next question in her answers. I think I could have kept chatting with her for hours. But below you’ll find what we did talk about.
What name do you perform under?
I perform under Bellatrix Ali. I chose ‘Bellatrix’ after the Latin for ‘female warrior’ (which has personal significance for me…and it’s also the root of why JK Rowling chose that name for her infamous character as well). ‘Ali’ is a dance-family name here in the Kansas City area and it was gifted to me by my dance teacher Jemira Ali — there’s a long line of Ali’s here and I was over the moon when I was adopted into the family.
What got you involved in Belly Dance?
I got involved in belly dance because my good friend Amber wanted to try it out, but she didn’t want to go alone, so she made me go with her. It turned out that it was exactly what I needed at the time because I had just quit doing Lighting Design/professional theatre for a living, had moved back to KC, and had begun a career in Corporate America. As a result, I was in a pretty depressed state mostly because I had lost my creative outlet, and belly dance then became that for me.
What do you like most about your own dancing?
I like the joy, light-heartedness and fun that I bring to the dance. I live by the creed that if you aren’t having fun, then the audience won’t be either, so I try to keep that in mind whenever I’m dancing. It’s a great way to get past any stage fright when you’re more focused on having a good time than whether or not you miss a step or look perfect.
So the creative outlet you needed drew you to belly dance, now what keeps you involved in belly dance?
One of the reasons that I stuck with belly dance when I first started, besides the creative outlet, was the empowerment I felt when I was learning and performing the dance. No other dance form that I’d been involved with (I used to do a lot of ballroom/latin in college) had been so incredibly positive for women of all backgrounds, sizes, and ages. I felt in touch with an unapologetic femininity when I started learning that really fueled me coming into my own as a woman, and I’m really grateful to belly dance for that. I’d say that the community is what keeps me involved in belly dance now (ten years later). I’ve met some of the most amazing women and men, from all walks of life, and from all over the world, thanks to belly dance. The community both challenges me and supports me in a way that no other community I’ve been involved in (and the theater community was pretty damn awesome, so I think that says something, really). Even when there’s drama, it never outweighs the camaraderie in the end. And whenever I think about possibly hanging up my hat, the heartbreak at the thought of losing that community is what keeps me in the dance.
OOooo! Good question!! As an audience member, I want to see a performer who has something to say. I get bored with performers who are only great technicians but don’t bring any of their personality to the stage or who leave me wondering why they chose that song or why they’re even dancing in the first place. I think there should be a reason that you step on that stage to share the dance with others, so I want to *see* that reason, even if it’s as simple as “let me share my love of this dance with you”. I think one of the greatest examples of that is Dahlia Carella. No matter what flavor of dance she’s doing, you know why she stepped on that stage, you feel every movement and music choice right along with her; she doesn’t just dance, she communicates.
It sounds like the community aspect is pretty important to you – is there one thing about the community that you wish you could wave a magic wand and fix? Why?
Ironically, I wish we could eradicate the current “sisterhood” notion. First of all, it’s inherently excluding the men in our dance and I don’t think that’s ok (that’s going to seem ironic and slightly hypocritical when you realize that my PSBD Project hasn’t included men yet so far, but I can get into the why’s on that later, if you’d like). Second, for some reason it’s morphed into this “we all should get along all the time and never disagree with one another ever” bastardization of the word. When, in fact, I fight with and disagree with my actual sister often (especially when we were younger) — so why should it be any different with a very diverse group of people who happen to have a common interest/passion? In a community this large, there will always be people you don’t agree with, even people that you don’t respect, and white-washing it with the “sisterhood” word seems to make people believe it should all be rainbows and unicorns. I guess that’s why I like the term ‘community’ — it’s more inclusive, diverse and realistic to me.
So let’s talk about your Plus Size Belly Dance Project project – tell folks what it is, and what motivated you to launch it.
Ok, for this question, I’m gonna take an excerpt from the article I just wrote for Fuse on this subject because I think it answers what you’re asking pretty well.
This past July, I was talking with another designer about how we needed more plus-size visibility in our community. We all know that belly dance is awesome for its size acceptance, but I agreed with her that when you think of all the belly dance images that you see on a regular basis, it’s often only of ‘straight’-size dancers. As a matter of fact, when I did a quick search of ‘belly dance’ on Pinterest, only 10 out of over 1,000 images were of a non-straight-size dancers (yes, I counted!). When I looked thru leagues of show photos for large festival shows, less than 1% were plus-sized. Even when I specifically searched for “plus size belly dancers”, most of the photos were of only costumes for sale (usually modeled on ‘straight’-size bodies, even), but hardly ever of real plus-size dancers. This pattern was a sharp contrast to the varying body sizes that I’ve actually seen onstage and in classes over the past 10 years since I’ve been a part of the belly dance community. We definitely exist, though, so why aren’t we better represented out there in media?
Personally, I think it’s a two-fold issue. On one hand, I do believe that there is a tendency for photographers to self-edit us out of shows. Whether that’s a conscious or subconscious decision, one will never know without speaking to each directly, but it happens nonetheless (I’ve been edited out of shows I’ve performed in myself). It may be because they’re imposing their own ideals of beauty or what a dancer ‘should’ look like. It also may be that they don’t want to hurt a plus-size dancer’s feelings by posting a ‘fat’ photo of them (when we are, indeed, fat no matter what the angle of the photo and fat does not equal unattractive by default; my gorgeous Plus-Size Belly Dance Pinterest board is confirmation of that). As a friend of mine recently said of that practice, “In an effort to not make a woman feel bad about her size, they’re [subconsciously] reinforcing [our] culture’s current warpy [sic] idea of beauty and then essentially telling these women they’re not worthy of photographing.”
On the other hand, I also believe that we plus-size dancers edit ourselves right on out of photos as well. Compared to ‘straight’-size dancers, we’re less likely to dance on large festival stages (where professional photographers are hired to take photos of the performances), even though we have a significant presence on smaller local and regional stages. In addition, we plus-size dancers are less likely to hire a professional photographer for a photo shoot than a ‘straight’-size dancer, even if we have a genuine business need for one, like needing to promote ourselves as teachers or artists. I feel that this is part of the line of thinking that we’re either not worthy of such an extravagance or worrying that we won’t like the image that will be staring back at us (and that we paid good money for).
Needless to say, I felt the need to do something to help the plus-size dancer community gain more ‘media visibility’. I decided that the best way for me to tackle that was to cultivate a collection of professional-quality images of gorgeous plus-size dancers (by starting a Pinterest Board) and then decided to also share them with my Belli Phat followers. So, away I went with my Google-Fu!
What’s Belli Phat? How did that name come to be?
Belli Phat is my custom costume company that I started a little over eight years ago. When I started dancing ten years ago, I wasn’t very happy with the costume choices out there for someone my size, so I decided to teach myself to sew. My grandmother was the daughter of a professional tailor and a life-long hobby seamstress herself, so I bought a machine and started asking her tons of questions. Soon my troupemate (who was plus-sized also, but a pear-shape to my apple-shape) asked me to make things for her, too, so I was getting experience making things for others who didn’t have my body type. Eventually that rolled into other people asking me to make items for them, and so I decided to start a side business (mostly to fund my own “belly dance habit”). The idea for name actually came from my troupemate’s husband one evening when we were all out having dinner and I was talking about how I wanted a name that put it out there that I made plus-size costumes while being as “You go, big gals!” as possible. ‘Belli’ is both a play on ‘belly dance’ and our tummies, and ‘Phat’ is a play on both the ‘fabulous’ meaning and the ‘adipose tissue’ meaning.
So why hasn’t your Plus Size Belly Dancer project included any men so far?
Originally I wanted to name the Plus-Size Belly Dancer Project (or PSBD Project for short) it “Phat & Phabulous”, as a play off of Belli Phat AND also trying to empower us ‘fat girls’. The problem is, most people aren’t like me — I have no problem with the word fat and proudly declare that I am indeed fat. I feel that fat is just a descriptor and it’s no different than ‘brunette’ or ‘short’ in that way. However, we all know that our society has attached so many other connotations onto the back-end of the word ‘fat’ that it’s instead synonymous with lazy, ugly, undesirable, etc — in short, a whole lotta bad things. Fat has become a bad word, not to mention most people try most of their lives to be anything BUT fat. So, needless to say, I refrained from calling the series that because I didn’t want to put people off out the gate when/if they were featured (like “OMG, she’s calling me fat!”…and unfortunately, some people still felt that way about the PSBD label, but that’s another thing). I therefore settled on ‘Plus-Size Belly Dancers’. Like I said, though, that comes with its own “fine lines” itself. What constitutes ‘plus-size’? Is it anyone over a size 10? 12? What if they’re pear-shaped and only “one part” of them is over said size? Is there a minimum amount of adipose tissue that a dancer has to have to qualify? The traditional modeling industry itself has similar issues with these terms/representations.
When I started the project, I did make a conscious effort to try to be as intersectional as possible — both in styles of belly dance represented and ethnicities of the dancers themselves represented. In that, however, I decided to just feature women at first because I figured they would have less of an objection to being called “plus-size”. “Plus-size” just isnt’ how you refer to larger men (not to mention that the line of demarcation between straight-size men and “plus-size” men is even fuzzier for men than it is for women). But I hoped that after I got the project off the ground I featured some amazing women in it, I could approach some of the men I had in mind asking it if would be ok to feature them in said group along with said women. That’s where I am now, with a list of handful of men at-the-ready to approach and ask them if they would be ok with being featured alongside us ladies.
You run into a random plus size woman on line at the supermarket, in the course of conversation somehow you find out that she recently took her first belly dance class – she loved it, but she talks about how she felt weird being the only larger lady in the classroom. Time is running out to talk to her – what one piece of advice do you just HAVE to offer her?
Honey, everyone’s so worried about what’s going on with themselves that they don’t have the time to think about what’s going on with you.
(I think that’s true for most of life, not just belly dance)
What are the links for the places your Plus Size Belly Dancer Project appears – so readers can find it.
On the Belli Phat page –>facebook.com/BelliPhat
though, more specifically, this album –> facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10152566084043631.1073741832.49963508630&type=3
And on Pinterest –> pinterest.com/bellatrix_ali/plus-size-belly-dance/
Is there anything else you would really like readers to know about you, belly dance or the project?
Overall, since I started actively searching out professional grade photos of plus-size dancers (performance or studio), I was deeply disappointed in how few there really are out there; especially compared to how many of us I know exist in this community. So I would love to challenge the plus-size dancer community to (1) go get a photo shoot done, even if you don’t think you have need of one right now, as you never know when you’ll have a gig come up that they’ll need a hi-res photo for a poster or when you’ll want to get business cards done; and (2) enter yourself in a large festival show, as you will not only come away with some great photos of your performance, but you’ll likely inspire a lot of ladies in the audience as well. Bottom line is that we need even more visibility of our community — because IF YOU CAN’T SEE IT, YOU CAN’T DREAM IT, MUCH LESS BE IT.